What is Syphilis?
Syphilis is caused by a spirochete called Treponema pallidum. Syphilis can progress through four major stages, beginning 2 weeks to a month after infection.
- The first stage, or primary syphilis, is nearly always characterized by the appearance of a painless sore wherever the spirochete entered the body.
- The sore, called a chancre, begins as a reddish bump that develops into a pimple. It then opens and ulcerates, often oozing pus until a scab develops.
- The chancre is sometimes surrounded by a pink border. This sore is infested with the treponema organism, and the individual is highly infectious at this stage.
- Usually the chancre appears on the genitals, although it can appear on the mouth, anal area, and on fingers or breasts.
- In women it frequently occurs on the inner vaginal wall or cervix and sometimes in the rectum.
- Since it is relatively painless, it may not be noticed.
- Within 4 to 6 weeks, the chancre heals even without treatment and there may be no further symptoms for up to 6 months.
- The next stage, secondary syphilis, usually begins with a bumpy skin rash, accompanied by general symptoms of illness such as fever, swollen lymph nodes of the neck, nausea, headache, sore throat, loss of scalp hair, and loss of appetite.
- More moist sores may appear around the genitals or anal region.
- Again, even without treatment, the symptoms eventually abate within a few weeks, and the disease enters its latent stage.
- It is estimated that slightly more than half of untreated syphilis victims remain in the latent stage for the rest of their lives.
- People who progress to the tertiary syphilis stage usually face serious complications resulting from the spirochete infecting inner tissues and organs.
- It may attack the heart, brain and spinal cord, eyes, joints, and numerous other areas, leading to life-threatening disease, blindness, psychosis, or paralysis.
- Although modern medical treatment has greatly reduced the number of syphilis cases progressing to the tertiary stage, they still occur.
- In later tertiary stages, the disease typically cannot be transmitted to others.
- A blood test is used to determine if an individual is infected with syphilis.
- Because the blood tests look for antibodies, these tests can be performed during any stage of infection.
- An individual who test positive for syphilis is usually treated with penicillin.
- For individuals allergic to penicillin, other antibiotics can be used.
- Refraining from oral, anal or vaginal sex will prevent the risk of contracting syphilis.
- If you are sexually active, having sex with only one uninfected partner will reduce your risk of contracting an infection.
- Latex or polyurethane condoms can be used during oral, anal, and vaginal sex to also reduce the risk.
- Condoms will not provide complete protection as syphilis can be transmitted through the open chancre which may be located in an area not covered by the condom.
Adapted from: www.cdc.gov/std/syphilis/stdfact-syphilis-detailed.htm